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Helping a Child Who’s Being Picked On

Dear Debi,
I have a 4-year-old who used to come home from preschool relatively happy, but lately, he doesn’t want to go to school at all. When I ask him why he tells me his friends tease him and call him names. What can I do to help him?
Rosa Bermudez
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Listen with empathy
  • Use books, puppets & role-playing
  • Teach assertiveness, not aggression
  • Intervene immediately
  • Talk with others about what they’ve observed
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Parenting consultant, mother of two
When your child comes home and says they’re teasing him at school, the first thing is to ask him to tell you a story about what it looks like so he can vent some emotions and integrate his experience with his emotions. Give him the opportunity to do that. 4-year-olds are great storytellers and then they’ll feel better afterwards. Ask questions like “How did that feel?” and “What did he say after?” Then you want to find out the closest emotion that he has for all of this. You might provide a reference like, “You know when your brother really makes you mad because he took your toy, is that the same sort of feeling?” or “Were you sad like when Grandma leaves after spending the weekend with us?” Try to identify the emotion by giving him examples.

Now that you have labeled the emotion, here is your teachable moment. When we’re sad in the Corwin family, for example, we might put our head down and feel sad for a minute and then go and play. If a child is sad because of what happened earlier that day, that child is not going to know how long he should feel sad for. So only let him feel the emotion for a minute, help him frame the time and then move him on to another activity.

The next thing you want to do is to make sure the child knows what to do physically when someone has shamed them or made them mad. It’s not running to tell the teacher because you don’t want them to be a tattletale. Teach the child to turn around and put their back to that child. Teach the child that the first thing you do is to never communicate with a bully or with someone who is teasing. You cut off communication because what the name-calling is is the person trying to communicate with you in a negative way. If you respond, you open yourself up to be vulnerable. Ignore the name-calling and teach the child to immediately play with something or someone else right away; you want to give the child something to do to distract them from the pain.

If you are at a park and it’s your child being bullied, you go to your child and put your hand in your child’s shoulder and walk away with them. The other thing is that if there is another parent there, you don’t want to handle the conflict by talking to the other parent because unfortunately it is dangerous nowadays and you may get into a conflict with the parent. It’s not healthy because the children are witnessing this. The best thing to do is to remove them to keep them safe, to redirect them to another activity. You can also say in your loudest outside voice when you make eye contact with your child across the way “Johnny, in our family there is never any name calling.” So model to the public what your basic moral code is without going directly to the child or their parent.

One of the things to think about first when your child feels that they are getting picked on is that we want to teach them what to do with their feelings. The best support you can give your child is labeling what that feeling is first and by telling them what to do with that feeling. For example, with a 4-year-old who’s having his feelings hurt during play group, you can talk to your child before you go there and say, “Peter, we’re going to play group today and if Bobby makes you feel sad again remember to turn your back to him if he hurts you. Then go play with your friends.” Prepare a child beforehand to recognize the feeling and what to do about it.

Role playing is the best, but I would focus on the play more than the role. Kids learn best through playing at what you’re trying to teach them. For example, you may want to play the mean game. Tell your child “you’re mean to me this time and I will be the person you’re going to be mean to”. Play very concretely with children, say “you call me a poopoohead and I will practice what to do”. So as a parent you model the behavior by turning around and walking away. That’s how you show the child what to do and then reverse it. Just turn it into a game for children. The play is how kids learn, not the role itself.
Child Care Provider Comments
Letycia Gomez
Letycia Gomez
Mother of Two
I would tell Rosa that it’s important to talk with her child’s teachers and share her concerns about making it worse for her child if the others are reprimanded. Ask the teacher for her advice and how to handle it. It’s important for the teachers and parents to have a partnership in dealing with these issues. I think adult intervention is necessary because a three or four year old does not have the skills to defend themselves against this type of behavior. Come up with solutions with them and share your concerns because communication can only help. When your child shares these hurtful experiences with you, like name calling, listen to them and empathize with them.
Carri Bryant
Carri Bryant
Cares for her two great-grandchildren
It takes between 1 to 2 weeks for a child to adjust to a new environment and generally during that time children may have valid concerns like “kids don’t’ like me” or “kids don’t play with me.” Often it’s because since they are new, they don’t know how to interact with other children yet. I would suggest that the teacher give that new little child a friend for a day to show him around, show him how things are done at the school. At 4 years of age, children can’t handle much without adult intervention, and I think it would be inappropriate for the little boy to handle name calling by himself without adult intervention. I think that Rosa should speak to the teacher about the name calling because the teacher may not even be aware of it.
Beth Collier
Beth Collier
Child care provider for 22 years and mother of three
The first step is to provide a safe place for the child to feel heard. For a parent to do that means to pull back their own reactions and repeat back to the child what you hear them telling you. Next, I would ask the child how he feels about it, which could help them feel empowered to take the first step, to go back to school and do something themselves. It sounds like this child does need adult intervention. Even when children have been advised to deal with situations, they need an adult to make it safe to go back to. Also, I would encourage Rosa to talk to the teacher. It can only help her and the teacher to hear something she didn’t know was happening.

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Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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